Biology Articles New York Times

Population GrowthAndreus: DreamstimeUniversity of Maryland professor of geography and environmental systems Erle Ellis published a splendidly lucid op/ed, "Overpopulation Is Not The Problem, " in Saturday's New York Times. Neo-Malthusian pronouncements have been a staple of ideological environmentalism for more than 40 years.

Back in 1968, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich flatly predicted in his doomy screed The Population Bomb that the “battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Just back in January of this year famed nature documentarian Sir David Attenborough declared, “We are a plague upon the earth. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us.”

Yet population doom has stubbornly failed to arrive as predicted. In his op/ed Ellis explains why so many biologists and environmentalists have gotten everything so wrong:

MANY scientists believe that by transforming the earth’s natural landscapes, we are undermining the very life support systems that sustain us. Like bacteria in a petri dish, our exploding numbers are reaching the limits of a finite planet, with dire consequences. Disaster looms as humans exceed the earth’s natural carrying capacity. Clearly, this could not be sustainable.

This is nonsense. Even today, I hear some of my scientific colleagues repeat these and similar claims — often unchallenged. And once, I too believed them. Yet these claims demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the ecology of human systems. The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistory, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems.

Ellis explains something that has long been clear to those not steeped in the simplistic verities of population biology: People confronted with scarcities don't just lay there and die; they make more resources, i.e., they expand carrying capacity.

Elllis continues:

The world population is now estimated at 7.2 billion. But with current industrial technologies, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that the more than nine billion people expected by 2050 as the population nears its peak could be supported as long as necessary investments in infrastructure and conducive trade, anti-poverty and food security policies are in place. Who knows what will be possible with the technologies of the future? The important message from these rough numbers should be clear. There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity. We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish.

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